General prospects

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23.1.1 Why male contraception at all?

The invention of the "pill" for women was undoubtedly one of the most significant medical and cultural events of the twentieth century. Nature has sweetened procreation with the pleasures of sex to guarantee human reproduction. The pill was the culmination of a millennial-long development of methods to disentangle procreation from sex, and has had a substantial impact on society - e.g. on family planning, morality and demography, not to mention economic and political impact. An equivalent pharmacological male method is not yet available.

Female contraception is very effective. Nevertheless, 50% of the 1,000,000 conceptions occurring every day worldwide remain unplanned, of which 150,000 are terminated by abortion, an intervention that will end fatally for 500 of these women. Although improved distribution and utilization of female contraceptive methods might ameliorate this situation, the contribution of a male contraceptive is well worth considering. Men enjoy the pleasures of sex, but can do little to contribute to the tasks of family planning - a pharmacological male contraceptive is perhaps long overdue. In addition, the risks of contraception would also be more fairly shared between women and men. Representative surveys have shown that a pharmacological male contraceptive would be acceptable to large segments of the population in industrial nations, and would thus contribute to further stabilization of population dynamics. It might also help developing countries whose exponential population growth endangers economic, social, and medical progress. Last but not least, male contraception can be considered an outstanding issue in the political field of gender equality.

23.1.2 Existing methods

For the male there are ways to eliminate both procreation and sex at the same time. Such methods have been used in the past and are still being practiced on a limited scale. Castration has been employed since ancient time to destroy enemies by abolishing their ability to reproduce and transmit their genes. Until the end of the imperial period in China (1912), men were willing to sacrifice their testicles (and often with them their lives) in return for high-ranking positions and political influence at the emperor's court. Meanwhile, in the West, up until almost the same time, some promising boys were forced to give up their manhood for the sake of preserving their prepubertal voice and achieving fame as singers, often without success. Abstinence is a less bloody means of eliminating procreation, but few men are willing to give up both sex and procreation for extended periods of time, let alone their entire lives.

Traditional male methods of contraception such as periodic abstinence or coitus interruptus are associated with a relatively high rate of unwanted pregnancy and also cause a disturbance in sexual activity. Condoms are the oldest barrier method available. However, when using condoms conception rates are relatively high, with 12 out of 100 couples conceiving during the first year of use (Pearl index = 12). Condom use has increased since the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, but more for protection from HIV infection and other sexually transmitted diseases than for contraceptive purposes.

Vasectomy is a safe and surgically relatively simple method for male contraception. The rate of unwanted pregnancies after vasectomy is less than 1%. The drawback to vasectomy is that it is not easily reversible. Achieving fatherhood after vasectomy requires either surgical reversal or sperm extraction from a testicular biopsy and intracytoplasmatic sperm injection into the ovum. Only about 50% of these men will become fathers in the end.

Given the disadvantages of these mechanical male methods, what then are the prerequisites for an ideal male contraceptive? It should

• be applied independently of the sexual act

• be acceptable for both partners

• not interfere with libido, potency, or sexual activity

• have neither short- nor long-term toxic side effects

• have no impact on eventual offspring

• be rapidly effective and fully reversible

• be as effective as comparable female methods

23.1.3 New approaches to male contraception

Despite attempts to improve the existing methods, e.g., vas occlusion instead of surgical dissection, or the introduction of new materials (e.g. polyurethane) for condoms, the inherent disadvantages of these methods preventing sperm transport into the female tract persists, and must be replaced and/or supplemented by pharmacological methods. Posttesticular approaches to male contraception are still in the preclinical phase. By investigating the molecular physiology of sperm maturation, epididymal function and fertilization, the aim is to identify processes that might be blocked by specific pharmacological agents with rapid onset of action. However, all substances investigated so far have shown toxic side effects when interfering effectively with sperm function. At the moment then, only hormonal methods fulfill most of the requirements for a male contraceptive and are currently under clinical development.

All hormonal male contraceptives clinically tested to date are based on testosterone, either on testosterone alone or on a combination of testosterone with other hormones, in particular with either gestagens or GnRH analogues. Because of the essential role of testosterone, it is appropriate to include an overview on current hormonal approaches to male contraception in this volume.

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